Armored Gun Boats on the Rio Grande

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Photo by GT Distributors, Inc.
Two of the machine guns on a DPS gun boat

In early December, the Texas Department of Public Safety unveiled its new armored gun boats. The fact that DPS now has a tactical marine unit received scant news coverage. There was also little mention that each boat is equipped with anwhere from four to six machine guns. That’s right, one or two machine guns just doesn’t cut it for DPS when it comes to fighting the “War on Drugs.”

If you’re curious, that’s two machine guns on each side of the boat. Then another gun positioned in the front and one in the back. Not bad if you’re patrolling the Suez Canal for Somali pirates. But these are for the Rio Grande, according to DPS spokesperson Tom Vinger. The boats will also be used to patrol Falcon Lake – where David Hartley was allegedly killed last year by drug smugglers — and the coast of Texas.

The Rio Grande is already patrolled by Border Patrol boats, agents in vehicles, predator drones and helicopters and aircraft operated by the Department of Defense. On the coast there’s also the U.S. Coast Guard making the rounds. But now we’ve got six heavily armed DPS gun boats that will also be out there patrolling.

DPS is in the process of training 40 cadets that will operate these armored gun boats, which are scheduled to be launched in early 2012. Let’s hope they don’t have itchy trigger fingers. Why DPS has launched its own marine tactical unit has not been fully explained. In a press statement from DPS, the agency says that drug cartel operatives have unlimited resources to buy weaponry. “Officers have been fired upon by cartels while trying to interdict drug loads along the Texas-Mexico border,” writes DPS. “Our marine assists will be used to protect the citizens of Texas and law enforcement personnel. We want our personnel to have the protection they need to come home safe after each mission.”

Steve McCraw, director of DPS told the media during a photo op in early December that the boats will be used to seize drugs and immigrants.

“It is fully capable of taking whatever threats they’ll encounter. And there will be a full spectrum of threats, because we will be using this as an interdiction tool. The cartels continue to exploit, move ton quantities of drugs or humans across that river and those waterways. We need to be able to interdict those,” McCraw told KXAN news.

So, is DPS going to start blazing away at women and children crossing illegally on inner tubes? Do they need six machine guns to nail some dope smugglers crossing kilos of marijuana? Also, the area of Falcon Lake where David Hartley was allegedly killed was on the Mexican side of Falcon lake. DPS can’t patrol in Mexico.

Ah, but who cares — have you seen the bad-ass machine guns?

DPS isn’t the only law enforcement agency going Rambo on military-grade gear. The militarization is part of a worrying trend that took off after 9-11. Since then the military industrial complex has supersized. It’s estimated that the homeland security market for state and local agencies will reach $19.2 billion by 2014, up from approximately $15.8 billion in 2009, according to a recent report by the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Nevermind that public schools are laying off teachers and renting out the sides of school buses for corporate ads to pay for bus routes, yet DPS has enough in its government coffers to fund not just one $580,000 armored boat with machine guns – but six. The boats were paid for with federal and state Department of Homeland Security money.

This blurring between military and law enforcement can only signal trouble for our democracy. The Montgomery County sheriff’s office now owns a $300,000 drone — the kind used by the military to hunt Al-Qaeda. It’s not uncommon for Texas police departments to own armored personnel carriers and military grade tactical gear. On the first day of the Occupy protests in Austin, SWAT team operatives in army green uniforms ringed the buildings looking down on protesters as they congregated at city hall. They scanned the crowd with binoculars. I thought they were National Guard soldiers but it turned out they belonged to the Austin Police Department. It felt like we were in a Third World country.

It used to be that the mission of law enforcement was to prevent and solve crimes. The military’s mission was to fight the foreign enemy on the battlefield. But now the two have become dangerously muddled. Who is the enemy and what exactly is the mission? DPS’ mounted machine guns and armored boats are something more akin to weaponry used by the U.S. Navy not civilian law enforcement. Armed soldiers fighting the “War on Drugs” have already proved disastrous even lethal.  More than a decade ago the U.S. government suspended armed military from operating along the Rio Grande after the death of 18-year old Esequiel Hernandez in 1997 in Redford, Texas. The high school student was shot and killed just a few meters from his house by a U.S. Marine who was part of a covert group monitoring drug smuggling in the region. The U.S. government ended up paying a $1.9 million settlement for a tragedy that could have been prevented and the Hernandez family lost their son.

Will we have to learn the same lesson all over again?

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. She has a master’s in public health from Texas A&M University and a master’s in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin.